There looks to be no room for the grave as 1,800 veterans die each and every day while the federal government races to keep up with the demand for military burials.

Cindy La Belle made a deathbed promise to her husband, Frank: He would get a soldier’s burial in a veterans cemetery close to the Cherry Mobile Home Park where they lived, so she could visit often and eventually rest beside him. “That was his wish, and I’m prepared to wait however long it takes,” Mrs. La Belle said.

It has been nearly a year, and there is no telling when Frank La Belle’s wish will become reality. The two closest veterans cemeteries are full. The nearest available spot is more than two hours away. And the acquisition of land for a new cemetery here in Bucks County is moving slowly.

So while Mrs. La Belle waits she has turned a sliver of their trailer into Frank’s Room. There his ashes, in a marble box, are surrounded by fishing gear, Philadelphia Eagles paraphernalia, family photographs and medals from Vietnam. The federal government is racing to keep pace with the deaths of America’s warriors. Half of the country’s 124 veterans cemeteries are closed to burials. More than 1,800 veterans die each day, 12 percent choosing a soldier’s burial.

Deaths are expected to peak this year, at 688,000, and continue near that level for a long time, as 9.5 million of the nation’s living veterans are over the age of 65. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs says it will take at least until 2009 to catch up.

The problem can be traced to a long lull in building cemeteries, between 1940 and 1970. The few built were on sites the government already owned or got free, often far from the veterans who needed them. This was cheaper and easier in the short term than venturing into the private marketplace, but the path chosen by the V.A. merely delayed the inevitable.

With a push from Congress, the department in 1999 began the largest expansion of the national cemetery system since the Civil War. Twelve regions of the country were identified as needing new cemeteries, those with at least 170,000 veterans and no available burial sites within 75 miles — the distance that families said they were willing to travel.

Five of the 12 have been built. But there is pent-up demand: Long-dead soldiers in urns, mausoleums or civilian plots, resting in temporary peace until a new cemetery opens. That can happen in two years under the best of circumstances. More common is a five- or six-year process, which includes Congressional oversight and separate appropriations bills at every step of the way.

When the nation’s newest veterans cemetery opened near Sacramento on Oct. 16, the first to be buried were Alvin Hayman, a second lieutenant in the Marines during the post-World War II occupation of Japan, and his wife, Irene. He had died in 2004, his remains kept in an urn for two years. His wife died in 2000 — about the time that Mr. Hayman, a home builder, decided to sell 550 acres to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her ashes sat for six years waiting for the new cemetery.

The real estate deal that Mr. Hayman embraced took four years to close — just five days before he succumbed to cancer. Jon Hayman, the couple’s 56-year-old son and formerly a partner in his father’s real estate business, said the pace of government bureaucracy was slow. “He had hoped to see the first burial, not be the first burial,” Mr. Hayman said from his home in Los Altos, Calif.

The cemetery in Atlanta, six months after opening, continues to hold delayed burials. The director, Sandy Beckley, said 303 of its first 530 funerals were for veterans who had died as long as three years ago, with 120 still on the calendar. Where burial grounds are at capacity, the department looks for ways to squeeze in more people, sometimes buying adjacent land or building columbaria for cremated remains.

At a Civil War graveyard in Marietta, Ga., which Ms. Beckley also runs, three people killed in the Iraq war have been accommodated by removing a grove of dead trees and using space relinquished by veterans’ spouses who had remarried.

But southeastern Pennsylvania needs more than nooks and crannies. The Philadelphia National Cemetery closed to most burials in 1962 and stopped in-ground cremations last year. Beverly National Cemetery across the river in Burlington, N.J., is also full. There is still room at Indiantown Gap, near Harrisburg, but that is 120 miles from some parts of Bucks County. Even farther is a new cemetery near Pittsburgh.

The preferred site in the region was next to Valley Forge National Historic Park, popular with veterans and politicians but opposed by historians. Once that fell through, the department had to scramble for land.
After years of looking, and heavy pressure from Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee when the long process began, the department settled on the current site, a vast field of spent corn owned by Toll Brothers, the country’s largest builder of luxury homes. It is appealingly flat, free of contamination and close to the scene of a major Revolutionary War battle.

But the local politics is tricky and Toll is driving a hard bargain. This month, to the V.A.’s delight, three townships that jointly make land use decisions each approved a necessary zoning change. Yet hurdles remain before the government can write Toll Brothers a $7 million check.

Toll Brothers has pared its plan to 170 homes on the 311-acre site. With $41 million for six cemeteries nationwide, the department can afford only 200 of Toll Brothers’ acres. The developer is determined to build the same number of houses, so now the V.A. must expedite a deal for Toll to buy an adjoining parcel.

“We’re caught up in stuff we’re not usually caught up in,” said Bill Tuerk, the under secretary of memorial affairs. “It’s a torturous process.”

At least two women in the county have decided the wait is already too long. Catherine Leckie, another Vietnam-era widow, is one of them. Her late husband, Arthur, a marine, died a year and a half ago of a cancer caused by Agent Orange. Mr. Leckie had been awed, years ago, by his parents’ funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, she said, which was “like seeing a president buried on TV.”

A full veteran’s burial appealed to her, with a 21-gun salute, taps played by a lone bugler and the American flag snapped into a crisp triangle. Indiantown Gap was too far from her home in Ottsville, Pa. So following her husband’s humorous last wishes, lifted from an article called “Going Out With a Bang,” she loaded part of his ashes into shotgun shells that a dozen of his buddies fired over favorite duck blinds or fishing holes. The remaining ashes are stored in an old shotgun shell box beside her bed.

When Mrs. Leckie heard from local Veterans Affairs officials that a cemetery was in the works, she briefly considered a full soldier’s burial for the shell box, thinking her husband would have liked the military pomp. She even discussed it with her mother, herself an Army widow, who lives nearby, also with her husband’s remains at home. After all this time, they decided to leave well enough alone.

“We did what we did when there were no other choices,” Mrs. Leckie said, “and we’re good with that.”

Source: NY Times

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